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Va.-Based, U.S.-Financed Arabic Channel Finds Its Voice

Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's news director, bristles at that notion. "We're state-funded, but not state-run," Harb said. "I don't recall getting a phone call from someone trying to steer the news. Ever."

Alhurra may have a problem standing out in a crowded field. Middle East viewers generally get about 120 satellite-television channels, including al-Jazeera, Dubai-based al-Arabiya, London-based Arabic News Network and state-run operations.

White House correspondent Dalia Al-Aqidi, left, works with producer Larissa Aoun as producer Mohamed Mokhtari confers with senior producer Imad Musa, sitting, in the Alhurra newsroom. Alhurra transmits two hour-long newscasts to Middle East viewers daily. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Video: To compete with state-sponsored TV outlets in the Middle East, the U.S. government decided it needed to fund its own voice. Enter Alhurra, the "Free One."
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William A. Rugh, a former ambassador to United Arab Emirates and Yemen who wrote a book on Arabic media, said Alhurra has "been a big waste of money" so far, in part because it must compete in a saturated field of Arabic networks.

The moving force behind the birth of Alhurra, which means "the Free One" in Arabic, was Norman Pattiz, the California radio executive who created Westwood One Inc., the nation's largest radio network. Pattiz was appointed in November 2000 by President Bill Clinton to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees federally funded international media efforts such as the Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti, which is aimed at Cuba. Pattiz quickly focused his attention on the Middle East, and, he said, he soon concluded that newscasts on Middle East stations often offered "incitements of violence, hate-speak and disinformation."

In 2002, the broadcasting board launched Radio Sawa, a radio station that mixes American and Arabic pop music with five hours of daily news programming. Meanwhile, Pattiz, armed with a video of scenes of Arab citizens stomping on American flags and burning an image of President Bush, lobbied Congress to fund a TV station.

"These are the kinds of visions of America that people in the Middle East see every day," Pattiz said, recalling his sales pitch.

Pattiz helped hire Harb as news director of Radio Sawa. Harb, a Lebanon-born U.S. citizen, attended George Washington University and had been working as the Washington bureau chief of the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat. After Congress approved funding for Alhurra, which had strong backing from the Bush administration, Harb became Alhurra's news director as well.

Alhurra and Alhurra Iraq are owned by a nonprofit corporation, the Middle East Television Network Inc., which was set up as a holding company for the Arabic television stations.

Harb said editorial decisions rest with him, but that he reports to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Bert Kleinman, president of the Middle East Television Network, which oversees the station's finances. Alhurra does not air commercials or generate any revenue and thus is dependent on the U.S. government for its money.

Alhurra spent $20 million to buy broadcast equipment and technology and to renovate the studio. The rest of the money went for operating costs and salaries, which network representatives say are in line with the U.S. government's pay scale. Next year's budget for the one radio and two television stations is expected to total $52 million.

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